A volley of coffee-table books
'If Yeats had saved his pencil lead,'" inquired Paul Muldoon cheekily, "would certain men have stayed in bed?" If so we might have been saved the avalanche of books about the Rising.
The batch under review are classified as "coffee-table books" which generally suggests weight rather than substance, designed for show rather than study, to be picked up at idle moments and left down just as quickly. This, however, is to undervalue what is on offer. Each in its own way, these are substantial pieces of scholarship which add to our appreciation of what was happening on the streets of Dublin at Easter 1916 and open the way to further debate.
They follow, by and large, the orthodox pre-revisionist narrative - little trace here of John Bruton's anti-thesis, nor indeed of Joe Duffy's Children of the Rising, forty of whom died in Easter Week in Dublin. There is a fairly sanitized presentation of death and destruction in what Joe Lee has described as the rising no one planned (because no German guns, the delay and loss of manpower resulting from O'Neill's countermanding order and the comparative inactivity outside Dublin).
But what they do, by the judicious use of previously untapped sources (particularly the archival cornucopia of the Bureau of Military History), by personal recollections and copious contemporary illustrations and documentation is to add depth and nuance to the narrative, presenting a variety of levels of involvement, of idealism, commitment, hope and aspiration.
Another common theme is the extent to which hopes were unrealised, or dashed in what was a rising but not a revolution, especially for women, liberals, free-thinkers and social reformers, who saw as a result of their sacrifice the consolidation of the hold of a mercantile middle-class on a deeply conservative society, and the entrenchment of the power of the catholic church in every aspect of social and cultural life.
Easter Dawn, by Turtle Bunbury (Mercier, hdbk, €32.50) is clearly coffee table in format, design and production values, and has what the publisher calls a coffee-table style (whatever that might be). The effect is a quick tour of the terrain, competently setting the events in the context of political and cultural developments in Ireland and more widely, a handy route map to the fighting and the aftermath. There are informative, if sometimes quirky pen-portraits of the main actors, and other lesser characters. There is a wealth of contemporary source material and photographs and evidence of assiduous research and archival retrieval.
The Easter Rebellion 1916, by Conor McNamara (Collins Press, hdbk, €29.50) is a more sober, more focused presentation. It provides a generally dependable short history of the period which sets the Rising in context, the Home Rule debate, the formation of the Volunteers, infiltration by the IRB, the Howth gun-running, the battle and its aftermath. There are pen-pictures of those executed and photographs of other main actors including General Maxwell. It is most interesting for the contemporary photographs depicting the destruction of the commercial heart of Dublin and the inner city (compared by some to Ypres) and a set of lurid posters seeking recruits for the fight against Germany.
1916 Portraits and Lives, by James Quinn (RIA, hdbk, €30) as befits the Royal Irish Academy, is a more stately affair, heavy in every sense and illustrated by gloomy, but sometimes striking drawings by David Rooney. A thoughtful and measured foreword and afterword by Patrick Maume provide a context for 40 articles taken from the RIA's Dictionary of Irish Biography selected to give a broad impression of the Rising and the personalities concerned with it. The net is cast wider than usual in including more women, more of the minor characters and figures from the Castle administration like Birrell and Nathan and General Maxwell (without whose perverse activities the whole thing might have fallen flat), Francis Sheehy-Skeffington and his lunatic murderer Captain Bowen-Colthurst.
There are long and authoritative articles by Joe Lee on Patrick Pearse and Michael Laffan on John Redmond. Most of the females are connected with the drama movement and the Citizens' Army and the elegiac note which marks the disappointment of their later lives is echoed in McGarry's book.
The Abbey Rebels of 1916, by Fearghal McGarry (Gill & Macmillan, hdbk, €40) is a fascinating book on the Abbey people who were active in the rebellion. He deftly deconstructs the Yeatsian narrative (recollected in tranquillity) of the centrality of the theatre to the whole revolutionary adventure. Theatre was central, indeed, but mainly through the small ephemeral groups of people who were also active in Inghinidhi na hÉireann, the Volunteers and the Citizen Army. By the time of the Rising, the Abbey (in the personae of Yeats, Lady Gregory and the insufferable St John Ervine) was no longer in the van, or indeed in sympathy, while Abbey associates like Máire Nic Shiubhlaigh, Helena Molony, Seán Connolly and Arthur Shields certainly were.
The attraction of this book is that it gives voice to less well-known people - the usherette, the carpenter, the prompter, the scene-shifter. Seán Connolly, an actor, was the first rebel to die (and the first to kill). Arthur Shields and his brother Barry Fitzgerald went on to careers in Hollywood, as did John Loder, the son of General Lowe. Most of the rest lived out their lives in penury and chronic disappointment in the conservative, illiberal, clerically dominated society of the new Ireland they had sacrificed all for. The shabby treatment of Peadar Kearney, author of the national anthem, is a case in point.
The book is also an interesting exploration of the nature of memory and how commemoration reconfigures the past that it recalls. Coffee table or not (and it is lavishly illustrated) this book is a stunner.